Retreat Centers contribute to the work of peace, justice, and healing in the world in a variety of ways. Throughout its history, Mount Olivet Conference & Retreat Center has sought to offer rest and renewal for persons and groups actively engaged in this work. Central to our mission, as an affiliate organization of Mount Olivet Lutheran Church, is a commitment to racial equity and justice. In this post, Reverend Chris Dorsey continues his exploration of the theme of Pursuing Justice, the topic of our most recent virtual workshop and part of our ongoing “Living Well, Leading Well” series.
One of the challenges of democracy is making sure that those who belong to groups with limited numbers, limited political power, and limited economic resources don’t get marginalized and oppressed by those with greater power and resources. One of the most persistent examples of marginalization and oppression in the US has been around race. Slavery existed in the North American context, starting with the British colony at Jamestown. More strikingly, slavery existed for almost the entire first 100 years of what has ostensibly been a democracy in which Christians made up the majority of the population.
This is a very different picture from the setting of the nascent birth of the Christian church during the first century, in and around the region of what is present day Israel-Palestine. Christianity began as a marginalized and even persecuted religion. Many of the verses in the Bible bear witness to this reality. In fact, much of the teaching of Jesus focuses on orienting the disciples’ attention toward those in the community who had been marginalized, oppressed, and neglected by those in society with more power and more resources.
In the passage from Matthew 25, where Jesus makes it clear that his followers are to care for “the least of these,” he insists that the community of believers must prioritize those who are vulnerable and powerless. If Christians are to address the systemic issues of racism in the United States, we need to recognize that the “least of these” imperative must have a central role in our faith. We must take seriously the calls to justice and liberation that are the bedrock of our call to action as Christians.
Two twentieth century pastor-theologians, who illustrate this in both theology and action, are Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King, Jr. Not only were they both pastor-theologians, but they were both agents of change committed to building and sustaining Christ-centered communities in pursuit of justice. More poignantly, they both marshaled “least of these” theologies to address the indignity experienced by minorities who were oppressed based on race and ethnicity.
Having grown up in the American south, MLK Jr. witnessed and experienced the insidious coupling of democracy and racial injustice firsthand. Although he was raised in Germany, while studying and teaching during a postdoc at Union Theological Seminary, Bonhoeffer spent a considerable amount of time worshiping and fellowshipping in the African American community of Harlem, NY. There he gained an understanding of the plight of Blacks living in America and thereby was able to more clearly understand the plight of the Jewish people living in his native Germany.
For Bonhoeffer and King, a Christ-centered communitarian ethic formed the basis of their understanding of the church’s responsibility to pursue justice. According to Bonhoeffer, the church is consummated in Jesus Christ and built on Christ as the founding and historical principle. By this, Bonhoeffer means that Jesus Christ is the origin of the Christian church, and Christ is present in the world at every moment and in every place where the church is present. In addition, the church’s actions are predicated on structural togetherness, solidarity, and the principle of vicarious action. This entails caring for those who are marginalized and oppressed; being a prophetic witness to the powerful when they are trampling on the rights of minorities; and placing a disruptive spoke in the wheels of injustice when necessary.
Similarly, King sees one of the primary roles of Christian community as affirming, protecting, and restoring the human dignity of all persons while promoting human flourishing. This includes caring for the oppressed and marginalized; being the conscience of a democracy prone toward hegemony; and engaging in nonviolent resistance, that is, using the force of love to compel the majority to act justly and with fairness.
In other words, pursuing justice is about being together in Christ, being in solidarity with the oppressed, and engaging in vicarious actions oriented toward justice for those with limited power and resources. For Christian communities, pursuing justice is about orienting our actions toward ensuring justice, equity, and dignity for others.
When driving in certain neighborhoods, it is common to see signs that say: “Drive like your kids lived here.” It’s a way of reminding drivers that they have a responsibility to ensure that their actions are not endangering the lives of other people’s children. There is a lot in that concept that should inform the ways we pursue justice in a society where race still plays a part in the disproportionate allocation of resources and services.
We should want every school to have adequate resources, as if our kids went there.
We should work to ensure that our policing and criminal justice policies reflect how we would want it to be, if our kids were at risk.
We should want a healthcare system that provides equally for all, as if our kids were the ones who lacked access to preventive healthcare and adequate nutrition.
As Christians, we are compelled not to rely on a “majority rules” theology but rather a “least of these” theology. We see ourselves as united with Christ in doing the work of affirming, protecting, and restoring the dignity of those whom society oppresses and neglect. We have arrived at this challenging moment in history because of the sins of the past and because of the persistence of racism. But as in every other moment in history, the church is equipped by Jesus Christ to rise to the occasion and do the work that needs to be done.
We are all in this together, for others. May it always be so.
The Reverend Chris Dorsey is president of Higher Education Leadership Ministry of the Disciples of Christ. He has served churches and seminaries in a variety of roles throughout his career: pastor, assistant professor of systematic theology and preaching, university chaplain, and Vice-President of Development & Marketing. He lives in Indianapolis, IN with his daughter, Alanis.